I am fortunate to be part of the 24-hour online #ImprovFest2020 (IF) taking place on August 8 at 1 AM GMT+1. Fortunately, that’s 5 pm in British Columbia where I live.
IF 2020 will livestream pre-recorded curated video and audio submissions from over 150+ artists from 15+ countries. The 24-hour festival is free to “attend” and will feature a dynamic array of improvisational artists, including musicians, spoken word poets, dancers, and theatre practitioners.
Visit the website, and see the trailer below (you can see me at the end of this clip):
And, for anyone interested, here’s the performance from IF 2020:
Spending more time indoors (due to COVID-19) means that I have more opportunity to catch up on films from my massive watch list. From those recent viewings, I am recommending three phenomenal films directed and written by women, all of which shared themes of psychological isolation and featured women finding their worth outside of the definitions and limitations imposed upon them by a patriarchal society.
The first film is Anna Rose Holmer’s debut, The Fits (2015). The film tells the story of Toni (played by Royalty Hightower): an 11-year old who trains with her brother at the boxing gym and then decides to join and fit into a girl’s dance troupe in the same community centre. The troupe begins to inexplicably suffer from a wave of violent fits. Holmer did a lot of research into real-life stories of seizure-like attacks affecting young women, going all the way back to cases like the dancing plague of 1518. On the surface, the film is a typical bildungsroman, but it is a much deeper film about what it feels like to be psychologically isolated while trying to navigate a fledging sense of self. The film does an excellent job of establishing mood and the final sequence is pure cinema. In fact, much of the film defies traditional dramatic convention in order to take us directly inside the head of Toni who is often framed looking at herself (through mirrors), her peers (through windows), and directly at the audience.
The next film is Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (2018). Of the three films, I recommend this one with some reserve and a warning that this is an extremely graphic and potentially very triggering movie. Where Kent’s The Babadook (2014) relied on implied psychical terror, The Nightingale is brutal and shows the full force of settler and patriarchal colonialism and its machinations of violence on women and Indigenous people. The story’s backdrop is colonization in Australia in 1825, and the film brings the violence through which the colony was established to the forefront: rape and violence inflicted upon children are prevalent throughout. I definitely got vibes of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993), except where Indigenous people are mostly silent in Campion’s film, we do get a somewhat larger perspective of the effects of colonialism and racism through an excellent performance from Baykali Ganambarr as “Billy”: an Indigenous tracker who accompanies our central character as she seeks revenge on her oppressors. Roughly, the film is about an Irish women convict named Clare (played by Aisling Franciosi) seeking retribution for the atrocities committed against her and her family. The film deals directly with her psychological isolation and her lack of support, although she finds shared grief and solace with Billy who has also lost much to colonial violence. Kent’s film provides an unflinching look at the British penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (now the Australian state of Tasmania), and while it is hardly a film many would want to endure, its palpable anger and themes of redemption are ultimately rewarding: “I belong to me and no one else!”
The final film is Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, or Portrait de la jeune fille en feu in French (2019). Portrait is a historical drama set in France during the late 18th century. It tells the story of a forbidden affair between an aristocrat and a painter. The painter—Marianne, played by Noémie Merlant—has been summoned to a remote seaside estate to paint a portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) to send to the family of her suitor (because Héloïse resists arranged marriage, Marianne is charged with painting in secret). The film is full of tension as the two women come to know each other through sustained gaze, expression, and eventually through physical intimacy. Spectacularly, this romance unfolds outside the world of men (and without men on screen) as these two women (and the house servant Sophie, played by Luàna Bajrami) learn to see themselves outside the confines of patriarchy. This film said so much about the nature of the gaze and the frames (boxes) in which the women felt confined. I was captivated by every second of this film and found Claire Mathon’s cinematography a revelation (her stellar work can also be seen in Atlantics, another film I highly recommend). Lastly, the extended use of music for the final shot— Presto from “Summer” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—reminded me of the great French director Claire Denis, and is a moment that lingers long after the film. If you enjoyed this film, make sure you check out other excellent work by Sciamma including Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014).
A few other recent films by women with similar themes to the above that I would recommend include Dee Rees‘ Pariah (2011), Ana Lily Amirpour’sA Girls Walks Home Alone at Night(2014), Lulu Wang’s The Farewell(2019), andMati Diop’s Atlantics(2019; Diop was the first Black woman to direct a film featured in competition at Cannes).
What did you think of the films if you’ve seen any of them? Feel free to drop a comment below, and happy watching.
Also, remember to wear masks and social distance (as excellently demonstrated in Portraitof a Lady on Fire).
There is a specificity to Black voice and song, as Afrosporic poet and critic M. NourbeSe Philip describes in her engagement with Lindon Barrett’s Blackness and Value: Seeing Double, which “come[s] out of a particular history of pain, trauma and a determination to make meaning of one’s life no matter what; it is sound lodged in commitment to matter to and value one’s self and one’s community in the face of a culture that continues to assert that Black lives lack meaning and are irrelevant except and in so far as they are useful” (Blank 24). The history of Black music in North America is deeply embedded in a Black radical tradition which responds to the abject violence of slavery and Anti-Black Racism through unscripted performances, shouts, moans, and cries; furthermore, the history also concerns traditions of celebration, signifyin’, unity, play, and constant revision. From Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” music has played a part in the pursuit of social justice for a long time.
I offer this playlist—a song a day for the rest of the month of June—in response to ongoing civil unrest in the United States, and in solidarity with those protesting the killing of George Floyd who was himself a hip-hop artist. One can draw a line from Emmett Till to Michael Stewart to Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown to Sandra Bland to George Floyd, but one could also connect that line to a divergent one that includes Canada’s own Anti-Black police violence and Anti-Black Racism, which includes the recent deaths of Andrew Loku, Jermaine Carby, and Regis Korchinski-Paque to name but a few. The playlist (in progress) offers a small sampling of songs in support of Black Lives and in the spirit of revolution, protest, and peace. Some of the songs are rightfully angry, some confront Anti-Black Racism (as we all should), and others offer medicine and healing. The entire world benefits from the excellence and power of Black words, art, protest, and song. Listen! #BlackLivesMatter
Also, please considering donating to any of the following:
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly provides an Umwalzung—that is, revolution—through a complete overturning of prior mainstream hip-hop album templates, as Lamar enacts one of the most ferocious black chants ever to appear on a hip-hop record. The album’s unforgiving blackness is important, because it reminds white and non-Black listeners that sometimes we need to sit down and listen to the conversation that is taking place rather than try to control or shape it. “Alright” captured the spirit of protest at the time, and feels just as relevant now. From Greg Tate: “Lamar’s “Alright” has been touted by many a comrade in today’s student activist cadre as their “We Shall Overcome.”
Listen to the song on my Spotify playlist (with a song added each day), and if you haven’t seen the video, which remains as relevant some 5 years later, make sure you do:
June 4: Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1970)
Both The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron linked poetry and music/jazz together, and their proto-rap lyrics and politics were major influences on hip-hop culture (also see). Scott-Heron has a number of incredible poems/ songs, but his most deeply embedded in the pop culture zeitgeist is “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (first from Small Talk at 125th and Lenox). In part, Scott-Heron was responding to The Last Poet’s “When the Revolution Comes” (1970), which opens with “When the revolution comes some of us will probably catch it on TV” (also included on the Spotify playlist). In this current era of fake news and mass media, Scott-Heron’s anthem remains a staple of protest and Black social revolution. The song calls on Americans (and we can extend that beyond American borders) to wake up and realize that the revolution happens in the streets and not behind a television set (or in this day, an iPhone). The revolution lives on!
June 5: Tracy Chapman, “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” (1988)
Written during the Regan era, Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’Bout a Revolution” is about what empowers people to revolt and protest (“to rise up and take what’s theirs”), as well as a warning to those who stand in the way of change: “Don’t you know you better, run, run, run … Finally the tables are starting to turn.” In 1990, Chapman sang the song at a Free South Africa concert where she met Nelson Mandela, and in 2016 it was the unofficial theme for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. The song remains incredibly pertinent in its call for revolution.
I’ve been listening to EL-P and Killer Mike since the early 2000s and so I was thrilled when the two formed Run the Jewels back in 2013. Every album they’ve released has been a banger, and their fourth installment feels like their most mature work. They’ve always been a political group, as evident on many songs—the video for “Close Your Eyes (And Count To F**k)” feels germane for this moment—or statements by Killer Mike, but the fervour of dissent in their fourth offering feels louder and more urgent with recent protests and Anti-Black racism and killings in North America. One of the most powerful verses on the entire album comes from Killer Mike on “Walking in the Snow” where he raps: “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’ / And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV.” Given this track was recorded months ago it is about Eric Garner, but it is also inadvertently about George Floyd too. Despite the nearly six years between these events, and the very public spectacle of the unjust killings, the lyrics underscore the perpetual cycle of America’s racist violence. This spirit of protest—although the album is still full of the usual braggadocio lyricism the two are known for—runs through the veins of the album. The first single (released back in late April)—“Ooh La La”— is a homage to the old school for the present moment and features veterans DJ Premier and Greg Nice. The video for the song, as described by RTJ “is a fantasy of waking up on a day that there is no monetary system, no dividing line, no false construct to tell our fellow man that they are less or more than anyone else.” I’d also be remiss to not mention ““JU$T,” which features Pharrell Williams and Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha and a classic protest chorus: “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar (Get it, yeah).” Kill Your Masters.
June 7: Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” (1989)
Public Enemy’s anthemic “Fight the Power” was written at the request of film director Spike Lee who was looking for a musical theme for his 1989 film, Do the Right Thing. The song remains one of the greatest protest songs of all time, and its militancy can be heard in both its lyrics and sound (which features samples from Civil Rights refrains, the black church, and the music of James Brown, including the line “I’m black and I’m proud”). Sadly, after I played Do the Right Thing in a FILM 101 class last year, I had many white students focus on the loss of Sal’s Pizzeria while the murdering of Radio Raheem didn’t register. The reality of “We Can’t Breathe” remains and is part of a continuum that stretches back to slavery. Lee’s film was inspired by a 1986 event, where a young black man, Michael Griffith, was chased by Italians and then killed by a car. With this background, and throughout the film, the refrain of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” functions like a Greek Chorus. Coming from the ghetto blaster of Radio Raheem, we are given a sonic metaphor for what it is like to walk in stereo. Like the “love” and “hate” brass knuckles that adorn the hands of Radio Raheem (and like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasting out of his portable ghetto blaster), we need to find ways to use love to battle the hate that cannibalizes North America. We need to continue to find creative, positive, hopeful, and, at times, militant ways, “to fight the powers that be.”
Note 1: Spike Lee directed the video for “Fight the Power” and staged a protest/ live performance. Lee opens the video with footage from the 1963 March on Washington, which transitions to a staged political rally in Brooklyn named the “Young People’s March to End Racial Violence.”
Note 2: I’ve also added Brown’s Black Power classic “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968) to the playlist.
June 8: N.W.A., “Fuck tha Police” (1988) et al.
Hip-hop’s didactic function is in part its ability to trouble, as heard in N.W.A.’s anti-police brutality and anti-racial profiling anthem “Fuck tha Police,” which drew the ire of the FBI and which repeats the phrase “fuck tha police” multiple times in the chorus. “Fuck tha Police”appears on the group’s 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton: the song portrays a mock court scene, in which the Police Department is put on trial. The song itself has been translated into other mediums and genres and was covered by the alternative rock group Rage Against the Machine. Rage Against the Machine are, of course, known for “Killing in the Name” (1992), which was written in relation to institutional racism and police brutality: “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.” N.W.A.’s ire comes from a similar place although it is located specifically within the community of young black youths in Compton (it is worth noting that the Compton Police Department was disbanded by the City Council in 2000). The song’s violent and anti-authoritarian message provokes response by stating that the Compton police “have the authority to kill a minority.” Rather than simply dismiss an intentionally incendiary song, it is better to look at the ethos that creates anger towards the establishment in the first place, recalling Curtis Mayfield’s defense of the honest depiction of poverty and social violence in blaxploitation films; he believes that “the way you clean up the films is by cleaning up the street. The music and movies of today are the conditions that exist. You change music and movies by changing the conditions” (qtd. in Wax Poetics, “Gangster Boogie” 88). Back in 1991, 2pac responded to police brutality on songs like “I Don’t Give a Fuck” and “Violent” and systemic educational racism by rapping: “No Malcolm X in my history text, why is that? / Cause he tried to educate and liberate all blacks” (2pacalypse,“Words of Wisdom”). Other notable songs, although there are far too many to name here, include KRS-One’s “Sound of Da Police” (1993), Dead Prez’s “Police State” (2000), Jay Dilla’s “Fuck the Police” (2001), Vince Staples’s “Hands Up (2014), and Nas’s “Cops Shot the Kid” (2018). Depending on context, it’s time to reform, defund, or disband police, as there our other alternative (and even hybrid) possibilities. Tomorrow, I will focus on a few songs in a Canadian context.
June 9: Eight Canadian Hip-Hop Songs that Speak to Anti-Black and Anti-Indigenous Racism in Canada
Clearly, I am going beyond the song a day scope of this project, but there is far too much to cover, and even this playlist barely scratches the surface. Just in the context of Canadian hip-hop, there could easily be 100s of songs listed here.
There is a long history of hip-hop culture and music in Canada as well as a long history of Black resistance going back to slavery in Canada. Critic Rinaldo Walcott usefully contends that “what is at stake in Canadian hip hop is a refiguring of an elaboration of the urban landscape of Canada and by extension the urban landscape of North America—black and otherwise” (“Methodology” 239). In Canadian hip-hop, narratives of belonging and unbelonging resist simple reductions of multiculturalism and ask us to reconsider the scope of Anti-Black racism, the nation-state, and geographical boundaries.
The first track is from Maestro Fresh Wes. Maestro Fresh Wes’s 1989 “Let Your Backbone Slide” was the first Canadian hip-hop single to break into the US Billboard chart. But, it is his track “Nothin’ At All” (1991) from his follow-up album that I want to highlight, which directly looks at Canada as country a “plagued with racism.” Despite this, Wes rightly celebrates Black excellence.
No playlist would be complete without a little Kardinal Offishall, and “Everyday (Rudebwoy)” (2005) speaks directly to Kardinal’s experience as a Black man in Toronto: “So where I rest I’m stressed by the 5-0 (Here we go) / Cops drive around the turf, lookin’ for someone to search / With they flashlights checkin’ in my dashboard (Whatchu lookin’ for?).”
Few Canadian hip-hop artists (other than Drake) have had the level of international success that rapper/ poet K’naan has, and few Canadian hip-hop songs are as well-known as K’naan’s song of global fraternity, “Wavin’ Flag.” K’naan was born in Somalia in 1978 and grew up in the violent capital of Mogadishu until the Somali Civil War struck in 1991. Much of his earlier music also speaks to his experience in Rexdale in Toronto, which has a large Somali community. K’naan brings us directly into the struggle that he embodies, even in a supposedly safe space like Toronto (particularly, Rexdale), and calls together a community of post-sufferers in the anthemic track, “Strugglin’” (2006) one of K’naan’s first singles from The Dusty Foot Philosopher.
Next is a track (and feature) from one of my favourite rappers, Shad. Black Canadian rap artist Shad relates the crazed infatuation with Blackness to the roles he is expected to perform as a black man in Canada as a form of mental slavery: “With mental slavery, the shackles is loose / And it’s hard to cut chains when they attached at the roots” (Old Prince, “Brother Watching,” 2007). The next track is “24 (Toronto Remix)” ( 2020) by Tobi—a Nigerian-Canadian rapper— and features Shad along with Haviah Mighty, Jazz Cartier, and Ejji Smith. The lyrics and video are both incredibly poignant, and Shad’s verse is a standout. See the video.
Toronto rapper Spek Won makes politically charged hip-hop and his jazzy “Black Body” (2015), featuring Shi Wisdom, recalls the past for the present moment, especially as Shi Wisdom incorporates lyrics from the powerful and iconic “Strange Fruit” for the chorus. See an interview with Spek Won with Exclaim!, here.
Lastly, I thought it worth mentioning two songs (there are so many more) from Indigenous hip-hop artists based in Canada who also face police brutality and oppression in Canada. War Party’s first album, The Reign, put First Nations rappers on the Canadian Hip Hop radar: their song “Feelin’ Reserved” (2000) was the first major First Nations Hip Hop music video to get rotation on Much Music; furthermore, War Party won the Aboriginal Music Award for best rap album in 2000. In a conversation with Tara Henley of Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, Rex Smallboy (the de facto leader of War Party) states that it was natural for Indigenous youth to adopt Hip Hop as a mode of expression: “When I heard a lot of the African-American artists talking about what they saw in their communities, the social conditions, that made me take a look at what was going on in my own neighborhood […] This is the reserve—this is not Compton; this is not the Bronx” (“Beyond the Reserve”). In War Party’s The Reign, there is no romanticizing of life on the reserve: “it is depicted as a place of loss, degradation, and ultimately as an endless reminder of the effects of colonization.
There are now so many important Indigenous artists making politically charged music in Canada, but it’s been incredible to watch the rise of Haisla Nation duo, Snotty Nose Rez Kids. Their latest, Trapline, is full of deft lyricism, unique beats that mix classic hip-hop with trap, and raw truths. They recently released a song entitled “Cops With Guns Are the Worst!!!” (2020), which animates the track’s title well.
For more on Canadian Hip Hop, check out the Northside Hip Hopproject by director Mark V. Campbell.
June 10: Prince, “Baltimore” (2015)
A few days back, on June 7, Prince’s Estate released a lyric video for Prince’s 2015 song “Baltimore” in honour of Prince’s Birthday and George Floyd. The estate also released a handwritten note from the musician that read: “Nothing more ugly in the whole wide world than intolerance [between] black, white, red, yellow, boy or girl. Intolerance.” “Baltimore” was written as a response to the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray who died in 2015 while in police custody, which led to large protests in the city. The funk-driven song is part protest and part peace anthem, and was performed live in Baltimore at the Rally 4 Peace, which provided some needed healing for many in the city. Given that Minneapolis is Prince’s hometown, one can only imagine about how sad he would feel about the killing of George Floyd. As he recognized, adapting a popular political slogan dating back to the 1986 murder of Michael Griffith: “If there ain’t no justice, then there ain’t no peace” (“Baltimore”).
June 11: John Coltrane: “Alabama” (1964)
So much of the music of John Coltrane is intricate and dense, at times intensely beautiful and at others primal and unsettling. Coltrane’s music was also very spiritual as he envisioned a cosmic understanding of peace. Arguably, there is always a politics at work in jazz, but one of Coltrane’s most directly political tracks is “Alabama” (1964) from Live at Birdland. “Alabama” was a direct response to the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The attack was orchestrated by the KKK and it left four young girls dead and another twenty-two injured. This act of white American terrorism was a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement as mass support grew for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
June 12: Nina Simone: “Mississippi Goddam” (1964)
Nina Simone might just be my favourite singer. She’s also a very talented pianist and she spent the summer of 1950 training at Julliard to apply to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She wasn’t accepted and believed it was because she was a Black woman. Nina Simone has a number of protest songs that deal with the Black experience, including “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Four Women,” “Why? The King of Love is Dead,” and others (I’ve added a number to the playlist). One of the most memorable protest songs written by Simone is “Mississippi Goddam,” which was an impassioned response to the 1963 murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, as well as the same church bombing that inspired Coltrane’s “Alabama.” The song was banned in several Southern states, in part because of the use of “Goddam” in the title. Simone uses the jaunty show-tune structure to deliver a powerful song that speaks out against the brutality of state-sanctioned violence towards African Americans who were denied the rights of citizenship. The song was performed in front of 10,000 people at the end of the Selma Marches when she and other Black activists crossed police lines.
June 13: Odetta, “Spiritual Trilogy: “Oh Freedom / Come and Go with Me / I’m on My Way” (1956)
Odetta has been referred to as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” and Martin Luther King, Jr. called her the Queen of American Folk music. She influenced a number of folk musicians including Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, and her music mixed folk, blues, and spirituals. All of her music is worth checking out, but I want to highlight her “Spiritual Trilogy” (1956) because, as Black liberation theologian James H. Cone argues in The Spirituals and the Blues, “The power of the song in the struggle for black survival—that is what the spirituals and blues are about” (1). The spirituals affirm unity and Black humanity though a communal context, and Odetta was a consummate performer of the tradition.
June 14: Rhiannon Giddens, “Cry No More” (2015) and “At the Purchaser’s Option” (2017)
This weekend I am focusing on Black folk music, and one of the most talented musicians working in folk music today is Rhiannon Giddens. “At the Purchaser’s Option” (2017) is based on an advertisement from the 1830s of a young black woman for sale. In the song, Giddens asserts the woman’s humanity against the horrific conditions she finds herself in. The other song I want to share is “Cry No More” (2015), which was written as a direct response to the Charleston church shooting in which nine African Americans were killed during a Bible study by a white terrorist. The song is fairly bare bones and features Giddens’s voice and drum, and a choir. The song reaches deep into the annals of history with the refrain, “I can’t cry no more:”
Five hundred years of poison (I can’t cry no more Five hundred years of grief (I can’t cry no more) Five hundred years of reasons (I can’t cry no more) To weep with disbelief (I can’t cry no more)
See the moving video (unfortunately it is not available on Spotify) and check out more from Giddens’s discography!
June 15: Childish Gambino, “THIS IS America” (2018)
Childish Gambino’s “This is America” (2018) is an obvious choice for the playlist, but both the song and video remain a visceral and surreal statement for addressing gun violence, racism, and police brutality in America: “This is America / Don’t catch you slippin’ now / Look at how I’m livin’ now / Police be trippin’ now / Yeah, this is America.” In the video, directed by Hiro Murai, who also directed the incredible “Teddy Perkins” episode of Atlanta, Gambino plays with the Jump Jim Crow caricature, as he directly deals with America’s persistent violence. Other recent hip-hop songs—also added to the playlist—that tackle America’s history of violence and Anti-Black racism include Kevin Abstract’s “Miserable America” (2016), Common’s “Black America Again” (2016), Joey Bada$$’s “Land of the Free” (2017), and JAG’s “Kapernick Effect” (2018).
You’ve likely seen the video for Gambino’s “This is America,” but even if you have, it’s worth another close watch.
June 16: Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, “TRIPTYCH: Prayer, Protest, and Peace” (1960)
There are a lot of political jazz records—a somewhat recent example being Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers (2012)—but a major landmark album is the 1960s Civil Rights-focused album, We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. The standout—for me and many—on the album is “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, and Peace,” which is an improvised collaboration between Roach on drums and Abbey Lincoln on vocals. Abbey’s voice is remarkable, and the wordless performance feels visceral. The song climaxes with Lincoln’s screams and cries, as she traces the parallels between the African American experience and slavery and apartheid in South Africa. Be prepared as it is a fairly intense, but essential listen.
June 17: Lillian Allen, “The Subversives” and “I Fight Back” (1986)
Dub poetry is a form of performance poetry with a West Indian aesthetic and origin. It evolved out of dub music comprised of spoken word pieces over reggae rhythms and Nyabinghi traditions in Jamaica beginning in the 1970s, and a number of Caribbean immigrant women have used the form to articulate their experience upon emigrating to Canada. Dub is an immigrant art form: it is an articulation and performance of citizenship rights, often across borders and through cross-cultural connections to diasporic communities. Black women have used poetry and music to fight back and resist, and in an American context we hear this in the work of Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni (see the playlist). In Canada, we hear this same resistance in the work of dub poets (although hardly limited to that form) Lillian Allen, Afua Cooper, d’bi.young, Ahdri Zhina Mandiela, among many others. Lillian Allen is one of the founding mothers of dub poetry in Canada and her first two albums won the Juno Award for Best Reggae/Calypso Album (for Revolutionary Tea Party in 1986 and Conditions Critical in 1988).Allen is a trailblazer in the field of spoken word and dub, and her album Revolutionary Tea Party is a good starting place for getting into her music and poetry as she translates her diasporic experience into “new forms” (“The Subversives”). In “I Fight Back” she reminds us that in a “just” country like Canada they label her “Immigrant, Law-breaker, Illegal, Minimum Wager / Ah no, Not Mother, Not Worker, Not fighter / And I Fight Back.” See her live performance of “I Fight Back” at the Shipdeck Stage, Harbourfront Toronto in 1988 for the WOMAD Festival.
June 18: Beyoncé, “Formation” (2016)
Back in 2016, we got to see notions of Malcolm X’s “Black is Beautiful” (à la Steve Biko) and “By any means necessary” reach millions vis-à-vis Beyoncé’s charged Super Bowl performance of “Formation” (the closing track of Lemonade). The performance, which featured dancers dressed as Black Panthers getting into the “Formation” of an X (an icon of identity, resistance, and the human right for self-identification), was a fervid Black Power anthem and a call to arms. The video for “Formation,” directed by Melina Matsoukas, who made her film directorial debut in 2019 with Queen and Slim, is itself a resonant intervention into the popular imagination concerning the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and it unapologetically celebrates roots and history while disavowing white supremacy’s desire to control Black cultural narratives. It’s remarkable to see the intersection of aesthetics and politics taking place in popular music, as new Black radical thinkers, activists, writers, and musicians provide the soundtrack for the current zeitgeist. Beyoncé and the various poets and filmmakers who worked on Lemonade enact their own resistive formation to reclaim subjectivity and Black womanhood.
Today is Juneteenth, which commemorates the liberation of enslaved African-Americans on June 19, 1865. It is a day to honour Black resistance, excellence, and freedom from slavery (at least in one form). There are a number of spirituals that would be fitting for today, but both Anderson .Paak and Public Enemy dropped a new song in the last 24 hours, and both speak to the ongoing struggle for the liberation of Black people. Because I’ve already posted on Public Enemy (but check out “State of the Union (STFU)” on the playlist), I am focusing on Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown,” which speaks to the COVID-19 lockdown as a kind of container that makes systemic injustices more visible than ever, and which overfills and explodes as we’ve seen in recent protests: “You shoulda been downtown, the people are rising / We thought it was a lock down … Sicker than the covid how they did him on the ground / Speaking of the covid is it still goin around? / Oh why don’t you tell me bout the lootin what’s that really all about? / Cause they throw away Black lives like paper towels.” It’s often easier to talk about the past, but I feel that Anderson really captures this moment in relation to the ongoing struggle for Black liberation. Also, if you haven’t seen The Free Nationals featuring Anderson .Paak’s Tiny Desk Concert, do yourself a favour and watch that! ✊🏾
June 20: Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” and “Inner City Blues” (1971)
“For only love can conquer hate.” —Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On”
“Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” —Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love 47
I am reminded of how Nelson Mandela, while in prison, drew strength—momentarily dissolving the prison walls—while listening to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”: an anti-war, anti-poverty, and anti-injustice post-Civil Rights anthem (Gilroy, The Black Atlantic). Mandela was able to draw power from the energy of the Civil Rights Movement in the States and relate it to his own struggles in apartheid South Africa. “What’s Going On” (the album and the song) are a powerful statement about the state of the world (across borders) and the specific Black struggle within it. The lyrics could have been written yesterday: “Mother, mother / There’s far too many of you crying / Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying …/ Picket lines and picket signs / Don’t punish me with brutality / Talk to me, so you can see / Oh, what’s going on.” So many people know and love this album, but as composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard has recently pointed out, “how many people listen to the groove and the melody of this song, without really hearing the words. And that made me realize that many well-meaning people have heard only the melody of our plight, without knowing what the song means for us.” Blanchard goes on to say that now is the time (an echo of MLK. and Charlie Parker before him) to “see the pain that doesn’t go away. To understand the smile that hides the immense hurt.” There is a connection between aesthetics and rhetoric (sound and meaning)—how a song sounds can be instrumental in conveying its meaning, and as listeners, especially those of us on the outside looking in, we need to work to understand that and feel it as much as is possible. The other incredibly relevant song from the same album (manifesto?) is “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” which speaks to the bleak economic situation of inner-city America, a holler that is echoed as African Americans bear the brunt of COVID-19’s economic impact. Both songs, and a few covers of “Inner City Blues” (Sly Dunbar and Etta James) are now on the playlist.
An official video for the song was released in 2019, and was shot in Detroit and Flint Michigan:
June 21: Brother Ali, “Dear Black Son” (2017)
Today is Father’s Day. George Floyd’s three kids—the youngest is 6—will not get to see their Dad today and that is truly horrible for so many reasons. It’s never too early to start talking to kids about race and to teach them to be Anti-racist.
Rapper and activist Brother Ali is known for his adept lyrics, and as a legally blind albino and Muslim, he has dealt with his share of being seen as different. As he raps on “US,” “can’t nobody be free unless we’re all free/ there’s no me and no you it’s just us” (“Us”). One of his most touching songs is “Dear Black Son” (2017), and on the track he addresses his black son directly, explaining that there are racist people who have stereotypes of him based on his skin colour, including police officers who mask their fears and racism as self-defence: “Dear Black Son, there’s people you’ve never met / Who fear and hate you for something that you never did / And these people are so self-convinced / Sometimes they pull the trigger, call that self-defence.” See the song on the playlist, as well as Brother Ali’s breakdown of the song, below:
June 22 and 23: Dead Kennedys, Nazi Punks Fuck Off (1981), Bad Brains, “I Against I” (1986), and The 1865, “Buckshot” (2019)
“When you’re black you’re punk rock all the time” (Sacha Jenkins, The 1865).
When many people think of early punk music, they often mention The Sex Pistols and The Clash in relation to the angst of working-class white men. But when we dig a little deeper, we find numerous black and brown (especially Latino) pioneers of punk. Black punks were at the forefront of early punk, including groups like Death (see the documentary A Band Called Death), Pure Hell, Fishbone, and the most famous of them all, Bad Brains. Bad Brains formed in 1976 and got their name from a Ramone’s song, and their music mixed reggae and other elements within the burgeoning field of hardcore (also spearheaded by groups like Black Flag and Minor Threat). Bad Brain’s song, “I Against I” (1986), speaks against the selfishness of a society that pits people against one another. Arguably, much of punk music has always been anti-racist and self-reflexive about its own movement, evidenced in a song like “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (1981) by The Dead Kennedys (whose drummer, D. H. Peligro, is Black). There are also many current Black punk bands, such as The 1865. The 1865 is a direct reference to the Emancipation proclamation, and their work explores different aspects of life in 1865 America: a land living in the shadows of the fallen Confederacy. See the video for their song, “Buckshot” (2019). Also, see the 2003 documentary, Afro-Punk for a view into the history of Black punk rock music.
June 24: The Honey Drippers, “Impeach the President” (1973)
The Honey Drippers “Impeach the President” has been sampled in nearly 800 songs and its recognizable intro drum break can be heard in songs by everyone from Eric B & Rakim, Nas, Dr. Dre, and Janet Jackson. The 1973 song was a funky protest that advocated for the impeachment of President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Of course, this song could really be posted any day in relation to the many racist (including anti-Black), homophobic/transphobic, and misogynistic statements and scandals by America’s current “idiot” (type the word into Google) in charge. Trump was impeached by the house, but then acquitted by the Senate, and so it looks like voting him out in November is America’s only option.
June 25: Sly & the Family Stone, “Stand!” (1969)
“Stand!” (from Stand!) is one of Sly & the Family Stone’s defining political statements as well as a watershed moment in protest music. “Stand!” features their typical church-infused harmonies (including an extended gospel break) with piano and unexpected mood and tone shifts. The lyrics encourage protest while also acknowledging that many are engaged in less visible acts of protest that reflect on personal change and oppression. Ultimately, the song encourages us to act and stand up and speak up for what we believe in even when others disagree. Stand!
June 26: Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, “Strange Fruit” (1939 | 1965)
Time magazine called “Strange Fruit” the song of the century, and Bob Dylan said that the song is a personal inspiration. Originally “Strange Fruit” was a poem written by Jewish high school teacher Abel Meeropol. A photograph of the lynching of two black teenagers, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith (August 7, 1930), inspired the poem. Billie Holiday pushed Columbia to record “Strange Fruit” but fearing a backlash they declined. Holiday instead went to Commodore records with her band and recorded it in a single afternoon. It was a song, Billie Holiday explained, “that was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial. A song that speaks to all the disregarded and downtrodden black people in the United States. A song that is a reminder of how love is the only thing that will conquer all the hatred in this world.” Jazz musician and journalist Leonard Feather called the song “the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism,” and it remains a song that still inspires books, an opera, and other renditions. One of the best versions of the song is Nina Simone’s stripped-down and highly emotive take (which Kanye West, with some controversy, samples on his “Blood on The Leaves”). Sadly, recent Anti-Black violence and lynchings in the United States speak to America’s ongoing legacy of slavery and racism. See Holiday’s live version (1959) below, and definitely listen to Simone’s version if you’ve never heard it before:
June 27: Alice Coltrane, “Om Shanti” (1987) et al.
Alice Coltrane is often overshadowed by the work of her husband John Coltrane, but she is a formidable force in creative and cosmic music in her own right. From her early recordings with Terry Gibbs and John Coltrane, to her solo work starting with A Monastic Trio (1968), and to her later devotional music, Alice Coltrane embarked on a deep journey into music as a kind of universal consciousness. She was driven by an immovable belief in the healing power of sound. Her fourth solo album, Journey in Satchidananda (1971) reflects her spiritual journey and the influence of Swami Satchidananda of whom she was a disciple at the time. For Alice Coltrane, music was a spiritual language and therefore a political force for love and change (although some statements by the Coltranes were more politically direct such as their 1966 track “Reverend King”). We hear this love manifested in her excellent arrangement of Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” on World Galaxy, which features her on organ and harp, as well as the intonations of Swami Satchidananda; in addition, “Om Supreme,” from Eternity (1975), is also worth a close listen. Although lesser known in Coltrane’s oeuvre, her later devotional works (under her adopted name Turiyasangitananda—meaning roughly the Lord’s highest song of Bliss) from the 1980s and ‘90s recorded at her Shanti Anantam Ashram in North California are phenomenal. Her posthumously released compilation The Ecstatic Music Of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (2017) features her voice for the first time on a number of tracks, most notably on “Om Shanti” (originally from 1987): a mantra that is an invocation of peace. In “Om Shanti,” her lone voice is gradually joined by other signers and percussion as the chant rises upwards. It is both humbling and inspiring to listen to and study her music and her dedication to love and peace. Alice Coltrane left the planet over 13 years ago, but the current political and social climate of 2020 needs her meditative and healing music more than ever. As cliché as it sounds, it is imperative that we all take time to look inward and genuinely bring more love into the world.
June 28: Bob Marley, “Redemption Song” (1980)
“Redemption Song” is the final track on Bob Marley and The Wailers’ Uprising and it was inspired in part by Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey’s 1937 speech in Nova Scotia about African redemption, “The Work That Has Been Done.” In particular, the song riffs on Garvey’s words, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery … None but ourselves can free our minds.” Much of the work for real change needs to come from within, and it is not too late for us, and the world even, to find redemption, freedom, and emancipation. Official Video below:
June 29: Oscar Peterson, “Hymn to Freedom” (1962)
Fraternity crosses borders, which is why a Black Montreal-based musician like Oscar Peterson was able to conceive of “Hymn to Freedom,” which drew on the energy of the Black church and was sung in various places in the States as an anthem to the Civil Rights Movement. Peterson managed to capture a pivotal moment of radical change, as we continue along the road towards true freedom and equality for all.
June 30: Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964)
Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” is one of the most emblematic songs of the Civil Rights Movement and so it is appropriate that it is the final song I am posting about for this playlist. The song was inspired by various events in Cooke’s life, particularly the time he and his group were turned away at a whites-only motel in Louisiana. Building on the energy of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as his own shame for having not written something like it earlier (he was moved by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”), he decided to write and record the song. Later that year change did come in the US with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and then the following year with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The last segregated schools didn’t close until 1983 in Canada (see the 1977 Canadian Human Rights Act) and the last residential school didn’t close until 1996. Despite these changes, the US and Canada are still very much anti-Black and anti-Indigenous spaces and there are massive inequities in both countries. The work is far from done, but for any of us who work on anti-racism and believe in a truly Just Society, we must hold hope that a change is still gonna come. We must act now. In that spirit, I end with one of my favourite quotations from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action” (Where Do We Go from Here, 1967).
I’ve added a number of other songs to the playlist and will continue to do so, but please feel free to leave a comment with any glaring omissions that you see, and I can likely add them!
Take a moment to stop and listen. Inspired by some similar sound meditations, I wanted to create my own. This was created in a single take.
And this is a remix and meditative version of my song, “I am Om.” Like the original, this version—entitled “All Life is Interrelated (Meditation for Peace)”—is about finding inner and outer peace in a world that often feels disconnected and sick. The vocal clips are from Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders (from Coltrane’s Om), the Dalai Lama, Louis Armstrong, and MLK. I played this version live in a single take using an MPC Live (for the singing bowls and bells), an SP-404SX to remix the vocal clips, an iPad running Xynthesizr, and a KORG volca fm for ambient chords. Give yourself 4 minutes to stop and listen. I filmed the video while out with the kids for a walk at the Colliery Dams in Nanaimo, B.C.
Despite these challenging times during COVID-19, I hope everyone is having a lovely day and finding moments of joy. This is the first full beat I made using the pattern sequencer (and then performing it live) on the SP-404SX. It’s hardly perfect, but it was fun to put together. The intro features my 2-year old daughter (Ella) and the vocals are from my wife (Meg). The end clip is from Ikiru (“To Live”), which is a 1952 Japanese film by the legendary director, Akira Kurosawa. Peace.
Thursday, November 7, 2019, at 4:30 pm – 6 pm Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo: B200/ R203
Come check out this amazing Intercultural Hip Hop panel that I am moderating on Thursday, November 7th, as part of VIU’s 3rd annual Intercultural Hip Hop Forum.
The panel is centred on the theme of “Telling Your Story,” and I will ask this diverse panel of hip hop artists to speak about their personal journeys in finding their voice through hip hop, as well as how their art connects with culture, community, and personal identity.
Everyone is welcome to this free event!
It features three remarkable artists:
Waahli was born and raised in Montreal by a Haitian family. He is a member of the city’s multicultural hip hop super group Nomadic Massive. He is revered as a trilingual emcee (English, French, Creole), guitarist and beat maker. He released his first solo album Black Soap in 2018. In addition to music Waahli is known for his community work as a facilitator and paralegal for a youth empowerment organization. He is also an organic soap maker.
Tonye Aganaba a.k.a Magic T was born in England to Nigerian and Zimbabwean parents. Northern BC and later Vancouver have been home for them since the age of 13. They are a well known fixture in the Vancouver music scene as a powerhouse vocalist and emcee. Tonye’s style, like their gender, is nonbinary through Hip Hop, R&B, Neo-Folk and Soul. They perform solo and part of several groups including The Red Gold & Green Machine, The Funk Hunters and BC World Music Collective. Their new album Something Comfortable is an “intentional and devotional endeavor” inspired by their battle with Multiple Sclerosis.
DJ All Good is Vancouver Island’s premier turntablist. Born in New Zealand and raised in Nanaimo’s Harewood neighbourhood DJ All Good has been rockin’ parties and festivals in the region for almost two decades. His advanced skills earned him the title of Western Canada DMC Champion in 2015 and his “Turntemple” mobile DJ classroom has gained much praise as an innovative tool for youth empowerment.
For a complete list of events, please visit the WorldVIU Days website, here.
With the spirit of exploration that sent Dante into the unknown, Ken Hunt’s poetry collection The Lost Cosmonauts examines the experiences of astronauts and cosmonauts who ventured into outer space, especially those who lost their lives in the pursuit of their missions. Drawing from myth, largely from the Greco-Roman pantheons, Hunt details the global and socio-political conflict of the Cold War era in relation to the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. Following his debut collection, Space Administration (2014), Hunt’s The Lost Cosmonauts continues his exploration of language, history, and humankind’s endeavour to explore space. The book is a small thing to hold in your hands, but the ideas are expansive, moving from our nascent efforts to explore outer space to the celestial bodies of the planets in our solar system (the section “Celestial Bodies” is inspired by Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets). Engaging with a mythopoeia of the space race and showing an impressive control over poetic form and history, The Lost Cosmonauts is vital reading for those interested in the history and mythic significance of humanity’s explorations into space.
You can read my full review over at The Malahat Review, here.
In time for Halloween, I’ve made a quick promo-video for “Devil’s Gonna Get You”: a remix of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil.” Check it out! Thanks to Inke Goes (www.inekegoes.nl) for allowing me to use her art for the video.
From Dedications II (and dedicated to Bessie Smith & Robert Johnson).
I recently completed a new DJ project/album. Dedications II continues in the spirit of the first album. While the first Dedications project largely explored the space between poetry and music, particularly jazz and jazz-influenced poetry, Dedications II is particularly indebted to the blues and is blue-tinged throughout with a low-fi aesthetic, and a boom-bap poetics. The album mixes, mashes, samples, spins, cuts, signifies, rhapsodizes, poetizes, layers, collages, remixes, breaks, distresses, archives, remakes, reshapes, and re-edits pieces of recorded history to create a sonic audio homage to a host of musicians and styles with a nod to the avant-garde. If you listen closely you will hear J Dilla, Louis Armstrong, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Alice Coltrane, Pauline Oliveros, Ursula K. Le Guin, among a slew of other voices, sounds, samples, echoes, and cuts. At times I added a live-recorded layer of chant/voice, singing bowl, beatbox, or field recordings (especially on the final track). I played most of the drums on an MPC Live, and many of the samples are recorded directly from vinyl. Dedications is an opening and a close listening exercise: it is a portal to the past and the future.
The music is FREE and is a not-for-profit creative project (although you can donate to my musical praxis and future projects when downloading). It is available, here: http://djtechne.bandcamp.com
Recommended for late night listening with headphones.
Washington Black—the third novel by Esi Edugyan and her second to win the Giller Prize—depicts the life of Washington (Wash) Black, who rises above the conditions of his time to shape a life based on his imagination, intelligence, and artistic talent. Wash seeks freedom and dignity in a society that would deny him the right to be fully human. The novel opens when Wash is eleven years old (it is narrated from his perspective as an eighteen-year-old) on Faith Plantation in Barbados in 1830. The contrast between a young and curious Washington and the injustice of his brutal surroundings is provided through the recollections of his older self: “What I felt at that moment, though I then lacked the language for it, was the raw, violent injustice of it all.” Edugyan does not shy away from the “unspeakable acts” of slavery and the way that slavery continues to affect Wash even when it is abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. Edugyan’s writing—from her careful plotting to her complex characters—speaks a veritable truth about what it means to be truly free.
You can read my full review over at Canadian Literature, here.